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In The Nature of Mind and Other Essays, from 1980, David Armstrong argues that only a Materialist account of the mind has any real value. Materialism is the science of the mind and, for Armstrong, it provides the physico-chemical terms by which the nature of humankind is best described chiefly because, when we search for the truth in things, it is only in science that substantial agreements can be reached on difficult matters. Thus, we abandon artistic, moral, philosophical, and spiritual accounts of our kind and, instead, proceed with the best evidence we have.
Now, over three decades removed from Armstrong's proposals, important questions remain concerning the best evidence that we have about the mind. What makes some evidence about the nature of mind better? How do we recognize such evidence? Is it within our grasp to understand the physico-chemical terms that, according to Armstrong, relate something more true than a philosophical account of beings like us? Any work that attempts to address the nature of mind from a materialist stance incurs an obligation to answer these questions.
Armstrong's sketch of a research program whose principles are grounded in Materialism comes by way of Kant: consciousness is like perception in that it makes use of an inner sense guided largely by the conceptual capacities that are themselves required for its undertaking. So, for Armstrong, the Materialist philosopher ought to be concerned with providing an account of the mind that is similar to accounts we've already given of perception, where, to again make use of Kant, an outer sense is construed as a passive enterprise that is also under the influence of conceptual capacities that answer to the manner in which the world impacts our sensibility.
Such a sketch does provide some justificatory relevance to the questions raised above. Science has delivered rational results of outer sense or, broadly construed, the study of perception. Why not attempt to do the same with inner sense or consciousness? This is largely the purpose of Michael Graziano's book, Consciousness and the Social Brain, where he argues that awareness -- let's call this outer sense -- is put to work in modeling consciousness, or inner sense.Graziano is a neuroscientist, and his strategy, especially in providing terms that are far less difficult to grasp than Kant's terms, is largely successful. Of course, the problem here is how we recognize and, ultimately, mobilize evidence of an inner sense, namely because consciousness, quite unlike outer sense, is not directly observable.
I will address specifics regarding Graziano's theory as it relates to the obligations of any Materialist theory of mind later. For now, let us establish the main ideas. Attention and awareness, two mainstays of neuroscience research, are repurposed to both describe and explain the fundamental nature of human experience. As descriptions go, our brains are information-processors and, when cast in this way, information-processing can be explained computationally or, as Armstrong would have it, scientifically. This is a critical and, perhaps, a necessary step for Graziano, as attention and awareness are hardly what one would call "mental state" terms -- terms that philosophers have struggled to identify, much less explain. It is difficult to argue, then, with the basic components of attention and awareness and, when consciousness is placed in this particular arena, a substantial amount of theoretical efficiency is realized.
Attention, for Graziano, is an enhanced reaction amongst competing stimuli or, in the language of information-processing theory, it is a data-handling method. Of course, brains can only process so much information at any one time, and some information will lose out. However, the information that we do attend to is used to construct simplified models of objects and events in the world -- models that are useful in making predictions and planning actions. This process of modeling is what Graziano calls awareness, which our brains use to not only make sense of handling large amounts of information, but to also model our own attentional state and the attentional states of others. The attention-schema theory, as Graziano calls it, allows for awareness to function as a specific experience within the whole of experience, which is consciousness. Thus, to have an awareness of something is to have knowledge of a specific type of experience. Importantly, Graziano does not dwell on the epistemological questions, here, stating that, from a neurobiological standpoint, it is no mystery as to how knowing -- "encoding" in his profession -- occurs. Rather, the mystery is how we become aware of any information at all.
That mystery, according to Graziano, is resolved when we understand that awareness is information. Brains are agents of construction, of processing, of accessibility to usable experiences that are described rather than produced by our cognitive machinery. It is worth lingering on this point as it bears on what David Chalmers has termed the "hard" problem of consciousness, which isn't hard so much as impossible. For Chalmers and others sympathetic to his view, consciousness is nonphysical and, by definition, inaccessible to science and impenetrable by others. We must accept, on this view, that consciousness is not only something that is produced by the brain but that it also resists explanation. For example, philosophers of mind argue that qualia, or the "what-it-is-like" aspect of an experience, are the essence of consciousness and the particular nature of such experiences render them ultimately beyond the scope of scientific inquiry. Now, for Graziano, the brain neither produces nor contains raw feels or vivid, ethereal feelings; rather, it contains descriptions of these things. Consciousness becomes a less intractable problem when framed like so: awareness is the conscious experience of information that has been modeled by attention.
Materialist theories, if they are to have traction, must implicate physical matter and, for Graziano, the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the tempo-parietal junction (TPJ), regionally adjacent to each other, are the main areas of focus. Under magnetic resonance imaging, these areas show considerable activity when a subject sees or thinks about the intentional actions of others, including gaze direction and facial expressions as well as significant neglect to self and other-awareness when damaged. What this means, in the language of materialism, is that social perception and awareness share a neural substrate, which makes it far more difficult to propagate the view that consciousness is nonphysical. It also further simplifies the extent of subsequent theories of consciousness in that the bulk of processing undertaken by the brain will never reach awareness because much of that information is detached from the attentional forces at work. And yet, Graziano faces a rather unfortunate difficulty when pressing the importance of the STS and the TPJ while disassociating those areas from the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a brain area implicated in social perception generally and, perhaps more specifically, self-reflection. One of the best-known methods for measuring "theory of mind," or the competency by which we can construct a model of someone else's mind, is the false belief task. In that initial work, Hans Wimmer and Josef Perner demonstrated that children younger than 5 years of age are unable to reliably report the contents of someone else's mind. After 5 years of age, results are quite robust in that, when given a scenario where an object has been relocated unbeknownst to a subject, children will uniformly answer that the subject will look for the object in the original location, thereby recognizing that the subject possesses a false-belief. Graziano's motivation for using the false-belief task is to make the case that the STS and the TPJ (and less so the MPFC) provide the necessary traction, in terms of data, for the sophisticated modeling required to accurately hold a false belief. But, this traction comes at the expense of numerous advances in developmental psychology. When mobilizing his argument, Graziano fails to address the age-related significance of the findings and refers only to when "people" perform tasks of this kind. For his approach, even roughly speaking, this renders children unaware and, therefore, not conscious.
This difficulty aside, there are many rewards to this text. It is largely free of jargon -- both philosophical and psychological -- and highly accessible to advanced undergraduates. I suspect that more interested parties will find some arguments lacking, which Graziano acknowledges, but he also states clearly enough at the outset that the purpose of the book is to reach a wide audience. The bibliography, however, is deep enough to pique graduate students and faculty who may want to develop an interest in the field.
Contemporary work in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, if it is to be of broad use to the cognitive sciences, must anticipate the kinds of questions that Armstrong's approach, and, far earlier, Gilbert Ryle's Concept of Mind from 1949, sets in motion: What makes some evidence about the nature of mind better? How do we recognize such evidence? Is it within our grasp to understand the physico-chemical terms that relate something more true than a philosophical account of beings like us? It is the case that within the cognitive sciences our capacity to make use of evidence depends on our ability to capture and measure physical occurrences that implicate some aspect of our traditionally construed nonphysical nature. That nature has a long, philosophical account attached to it, and, understandably, many of us cling to it. What can be discerned from our physical and chemical selves, however, may be something as ordinary as attention and awareness. Graziano's work is in important step in bridging a persistent gap between mind and brain in interdisciplinary research, notably because he attempts to answer the questions that require asking, and he does so with a remarkable level of humility.
© 2016 Jean-Paul Orgeron
Jean-Paul Orgeron, PhD, Department of Philosophy, State University of New York at Oneonta